Francis Thicke

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Comments at a CAFO hearing

Francis Thicke is a soil scientist and organic dairy farmer. He has served as the National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service and was the 2010 Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture. -promoted by desmoinesdem

The room was packed for an August 28 hearing on a new proposed confined-animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Jefferson County. Lots of people expressed their frustration that Iowa’s laws make it nearly impossible to stop a CAFO that will compromise the quality of life for the neighbors.

Here are my comments:

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Iowa agriculture is a water quality problem waiting to happen

Francis Thicke is a soil scientist and organic dairy farmer. He has served as the National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA-Extension Service and was the 2010 Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture. -promoted by desmoinesdem

I submitted the following op-ed to the Des Moines Register, but the newspaper did not print it.

In a recent guest column for the Register, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig presented the usual ag-lobby refrain that Iowa’s nitrate problem is caused by the weather. It is time for Iowa’s citizens to stop listening to this kind of misinformation and learn about the real cause of our nitrate problem, and how we can solve it.

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Ethanol Hearing

(In addition to earning a Ph.D in agronomy/soil science, Thicke is an organic farmer and was the Democratic nominee for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2010. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Today I attended the hearing put on by Governor Branstad to bash the EPA for proposing to change the rules on the Renewable Fuels Standard for ethanol.  It was an all-day pepfest for ethanol.  I came late, but I think was the only one to talk about the “other side” of ethanol.Here are my remarks (although the footnote explanations and references don’t come through):

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National Organic Program Rule Change

(Thanks for this guest diary on an important federal policy change that will affect consumers as well as farmers. The issue has been below the radar as the government shutdown and "Obamacare" rollout dominated the news. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

As a member of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), I have been asked by consumers how the rules recently got changed in the National Organic Program (NOP) to make it easier for synthetic materials on the National List of Approved Materials to be relisted when they sunset after five years (as required by law).  To clarify, any synthetic materials approved for use in organic production and handling must be approved by the NOSB by a two-thirds majority vote.  And, by law, those materials sunset in five years and must be re-approved by the NOSB to remain on the National List.  

The recent rule change — made by USDA without consultation with the NOSB — turns the voting upside down, changing the voting for sunseting materials from a former two-thirds majority to re-approve a sunseting material to two-thirds majority to de-list a sunseting material.  As Jim Riddle, long-time leader in the organic community and former Chair of the NOSB points out below in a letter to the Organic Trade Association (who supports the rule change), that is a huge change.  

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Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy Will Not Work

(The author is an organic farmer with a Phd in soil science. He was the Democratic nominee for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in 2010. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

We have been hearing a lot of hype from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey about how the voluntary approach to changing agricultural practices to improve water quality — as proposed in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) — will be effective.  However, my experience in over 25 years of work on water quality tells me that this is very naive thinking at best, and deceptive to the public at worst.  Below are the comments on the NRS that I submitted a few days ago.

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IA Ag Sec: Who's Afraid of Francis Thicke?

(The horror! - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Some farmers are afraid of me.

I know this because a farmer named Jerry wrote a letter to the Des Moines Register recently saying that they are scared.  It would be a “scary scenario for mainstream agriculture” if I got elected as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, he said.   Francis Thicke is a “true believer in everything organic,” he shuddered.

Running for office is an adventure.  But I never expected to learn that Iowa farmers, who are among the most resilient, shrewd and creative people on the planet, are afraid of a mild-mannered organic dairy farmer with a PhD in Agronomy and some ideas for helping them meet challenges such as peak oil.   So I thought I would write him a letter to reassure him that I’m not scary, because if we don’t get our act together to deal with the real challenges of peak oil, the disruptions caused by climate change, and the growing monopoly power of corporate agribusiness, then we really will have cause for concern.


Dear Jerry,

Don’t be afraid.  This is America, and no one is going to make you “go organic.”  It’s the Big Ag interests that want to limit your choices, not me.   You might save money and protect water quality and the health of your family if you understood how to apply sustainable farming methods that do not require farm chemicals, but you don’t have to.

No one is going to force you to make your own biofuels on the farm from perennial crops that make your farm resilient and energy efficient.  Nor will you be forced to drive a hydrogen or ammonia-powered tractor with fuel derived from wind power.   If diesel prices soar in the next few years, as the Defense Department[pdf] is warning us, it’s your right to pay $6 a gallon or more and keep right on using it.  There may be shortages in our future by 2015, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find fuel at some price, somewhere.

You have the right to keep doing things the way you always have, and not take advantage of science-based ways to bring your costs down and prepare for a future without abundant petrochemicals.  All I am offering is a vision for a thriving agriculture in the absence of cheap oil, and leadership to meet the challenges that we know are coming.   Energy will be a huge game-changer over the coming decade–for agriculture, and for everything else.

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IA Ag Sec: Threats to Food--Peak Oil and Agriculture

(Francis Thicke is the Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Agriculture is highly dependent on cheap oil.  Just observe the many tractors, combines, and other oil-consuming farm machinery as you drive across the country.   That dependence on cheap oil is a threat to agriculture, and a new report from the U.S. military Joint Operating Command warns that the threat is imminent:

“By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day….”

A shortfall of that magnitude will drive up oil prices, and cause economic and political consequences worldwide.   Here in Iowa, we have already seen what that could look like.  When oil hit $147 per barrel in 2008, Iowa agriculture went into a tailspin that it hasn’t yet fully recovered from.  Keeping the farm diesel tanks full and buying nitrogen fertilizer for the corn crop came close to prohibitively expensive overnight.

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Thicke Calls for Legislature to Protect Water Quality

(It's a shame state legislators would even consider bills as bad as these. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Francis Thicke, Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, is urging the Iowa Legislature to resist pressure by special interest groups to undermine a law protecting water quality.  Last year, the Legislature created a law prohibiting confinement feeding operations from spreading manure on snow-covered or frozen ground during conditions that would put water quality at risk.  The bill now under consideration would provide an exemption for all confinement feeding operations built before July 1, 2009 — which is nearly all of them — from requirements to have enough manure storage space to be able to comply with the winter manure-spreading prohibition.  

Thicke said, “This bill would grant a permanent exemption to confinement feeding operations that would undermine the intent of the law created last year to protect water quality.”

Research at Iowa State University and other universities has found that when manure is spread on snow-covered and frozen ground it is at greater risk for runoff and water contamination.  Thicke, a dairy farmer and Ph.D. soil scientist, cited the example of an ISU study that found when manure was applied on top of snow on Feb. 14 and a major thaw began the next day, the nitrogen concentration in the runoff was 1,086 parts per million (ppm) on Feb. 15, the following day.  By comparison, in the same study, where manure had been applied the previous fall the nitrogen concentration in the field runoff on Feb. 15 was just 7 ppm.  Thicke said, “This was an extreme example, but it does document the magnitude of the potential risk of applying manure on snow-covered or frozen ground.”

The bills now under consideration by the legislature — House File 2324 and Senate File 2229 — would nullify rules proposed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to require confinement feeding operations to have at least 100 days of storage in order to qualify for an emergency exemption from the winter manure-spreading prohibition.  

Thicke said, “It is reasonable that animal feeding operations should have a one- or two-year grace period to build sufficient manure storage capacity to comply with last year’s law, but to give a permanent exemption makes no sense if protecting water quality is a priority.”  Thicke added, “The fate of the bills now before the Iowa House and Senate will tell us if the Legislature is serious about protecting water quality, or if the pressure of special interests will prevail.”

Secretary Vilsack Hailed as the "New Champion of Local Food"

(Francis Thicke is the Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Increasing local food production and consumption would produce huge collateral benefits for the economy and environment.   - promoted by desmoinesdem)

A recent story on National Public Radio highlighted the Obama administration’s push to encourage Americans to buy more locally grown food.…

The Obama administration’s Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has become an articulate spokesperson for local foods.  Said Vilsack, “There is, I think, a movement in the country where people are very interested in knowing where their food comes from.”

“There’s a disconnect between the food that we eat and our awareness of where it comes from,” Vilsack said. “We think it comes from a grocery store.  It doesn’t.  It comes from family farmers across the country working hard every day.”

Speaking about the potential health benefits of locally grown food, Vilsack said. “As we focus on health care, and as the health care debate focuses more specifically on prevention and wellness, people are going to be exceedingly interested in fresh food and food that’s nutritious.”

Last month, Vilsack’s Agriculture Department launched a program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” to help people understand where their food comes from, so they can make more informed choices.

When rolling out the new program, Vilsack pointed out that creating new markets for local food will create wealth in rural communities.  Said Vilsack, “An American people that is more engaged with their food supply will create new income opportunities for American agriculture.”

“Reconnecting consumers and institutions with local producers will stimulate economies in rural communities, improve access to healthy, nutritious food for our families, and decrease the amount of resources to transport our food,” he added.

Vilsack pointed out that there is a growing number of small farms in the U.S., many of which grow food for their local communities.  “In the last five years, we saw 108,000 new farming operations get started with sales of less than $10,000,” Vilsack said.  “These are very small farms, but they are a very important component of our agriculture.”

In Iowa, during the same five-year period, we saw an increase of 4,000 new small farms.  The growing number of new small farms–juxtaposed with a report from Iowa’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture that there are over 60 grassroots organizations in Iowa working on expanding local food production and consumption–bodes well for the potential growth of local food systems in Iowa.  

Strategic state-level coordination of these many efforts towards development of local food systems could be very effective.  If elected Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, I will work to revive the Iowa Food Policy Council and provide a home for the Council in the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.  I will encourage the Council to make recommendations for where statewide efforts could be most effective.

Why We Need to Look Beyond Corn for Biofuels

(Francis Thicke is the Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

According to a new study from Purdue University, future expansion of ethanol production from corn would mean higher loadings of fertilizers and pesticides to water resources.  The study found that water sources near fields of continuous corn had higher levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and fungicides than corn-soybean rotations.  The study did not compare perennial crops, but no doubt they would be even more protective of water resources because perennial crops better protect the soil from erosion and nitrate leaching, and require less pesticide use.

More information about the study can be found at http://www.laboratoryequipment…

This study calls attention to the urgent need to accelerate development of technology to produce biofuels from perennial crops, which protect the soil and require fewer inputs of fertilizers and pesticides than corn.  Technologies under development that would fill this need include cellulosic ethanol production and pyrolysis, both of which could use biomass from perennial crops.

Pyrolysis is a process of heating biomass in the absence of oxygen to produce gaseous and liquid fuels that can be converted to gasoline and diesel fuel.  Another byproduct of pyrolysis is biochar, a charcoal material that can serve as a carbon-sequestering soil amendment that improves soil fertility.

The future for biofuels production from perennial crops through pyrolysis looks promising, though more research is needed to fully develop the technology.  Pyrolysis produces a higher energy yield per unit of biomass and has a smaller carbon footprint than ethanol production.

Thicke Responds to Republican Party Name Calling

(James Lynch has more on this story. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

In response to Francis Thicke’s announcement yesterday to run for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, The Iowa Republican Party’s Executive Director Jeff Boeyink issued a release that was long on name calling and slander, but absent of substance.  Boeyink called Thicke an “ultra radical” who “would spell disaster to the stability and sustainability of our family farmers and the jobs they represent.”

Thicke’s campaign focuses on increasing the economic and environmental sustainability of Iowa’s family farms.  “Advocating for conserving our soil, water quality, family farms, and rural communities is not radical,” said Thicke.  “To me that fits the definition of a true conservative.”

Thicke, a successful family farmer for over 25 years, added, “Iowa agriculture today faces major challenges, as well as tremendous opportunities.  I would welcome an opportunity to debate Bill Northey–or Jeff Boeyink–on issues of importance to Iowa agriculture.  However, I am not interested in indulging in name calling or slander.”  

Reflecting his desire to avoid a mud-slinging campaign, Thicke added, “There is no mud on the high road.”

Illinois Supports Local Foods

(Francis Thicke is exploring a campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

A new law will encourage local food production in Illinois.  The Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Act sets procurement goals of local farm and food products for food purchases funded by the state.

One goal of the law is that by 2020 20% of all food and food products purchased by state agencies and state-owned facilities be produced in Illinois.  State-owned facilities include prisons and public universities.

A second goal of the law is that by 2020 10% of all food and food products purchased by entities that at least partly funded by state dollars be produced in Illinois.  This category includes public schools, child care facilities, and hospitals.

The legislation creates a Local Food Council that will help facilitate meeting these goals.

This seems like a reasonable approach that we should consider here in Iowa.  We in Iowa like to claim the title of “Food Capital of the World.”  However, estimates are that about 80% of the $8 billion worth of food we eat in Iowa comes from out of state.  Producing more of the food we eat right here in Iowa would be good for our economy, rural communities, health and environment.

Ecology as a Model for Livestock Production

(Francis Thicke is exploring a bid for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Recently I was asked to write this column for the Leopold Letter, the newsletter of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.…

Twelve thousand years ago, in the wake of a glacier, the land that would become Northern Iowa was a geologic wasteland.  Glacial materials conveyed from the north had obliterated the biological diversity of the previous era.   But then nature’s ecological processes began anew, creating-over twelve millennia-a prairie ecosystem with its fertile, productive soils.

How did that happen?  Gradually, plants, animals and microorganisms colonized the desolate landscape, creating an increasingly diverse and complex ecosystem.  The ecosystem’s plants and animals generated organic materials which soil microorganisms used to develop fertile soils from raw geologic materials.  

It has been estimated that fifty million bison once roamed the prairies and plains of North America.  Bison herds roving the prairie landscape are a useful model we can use to design animal production systems that are resilient, energy-efficient, and biologically diverse. (continues after the jump)

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Organic is 21st Century

(Francis Thicke is exploring a run for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture next year. I will continue to promote diaries by any Democratic candidates for Iowa offices. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

We often hear proponents of industrialized agriculture dismissively say that organic farming would take us back to the 19th century.  What they overlook is that all farming in the 19th century was “conventional.”  That was before widespread adoption of agricultural chemicals created the distinction between “organic” and “conventional” farming, after the middle of the 20th century. Many innovations and much new knowledge have contributed to the efficiency and productivity of both organic and conventional farming since then.  

Innovations in farm equipment over the years have benefited both organic and conventional farmers.  For example, in the 1960’s when my brother and I would cut hay using a tractor on a converted horse mower, it took two of us about an hour to cut one acre.  Today–on my organic farm–I can easily cut, condition and windrow 10 acres of hay per hour.  In the 1960’s it took our crew of four a long hard day to bale 50 tons of hay; today I can bale 50 tons in two hours, by myself.  Also, today’s organic farmers use mechanical weeders and guidance systems on cultivators to control weeds efficiently and precisely.

But the greatest advancement for today’s organic farmers has been an increased understanding of ecology, and how to design and manage organic farms to efficiently utilize the energy and organizing power of nature’s ecology.  For example, on my grass-based organic dairy farm, I have 130 acres split into 60 small pasture cells (called paddocks) that allow me to give my milking cows a new, ungrazed, section of pasture after each milking, twice a day.  Then, the cows move to the next paddock and the grazed paddock is able to regrow in preparation for the next round of grazing. This type of animal management mimics the bison/prairie-grass ecology that built Iowa’s highly productive prairie soils.  New scientific understandings of grassland ecology help grass-based farmers better manage grazing in order to increase biodiversity and productivity.

Also, new scientific advancements in understanding the ecology of insects, plant diseases, and weeds are helping organic farmers manage pests through the use of crop rotations, beneficial insects, and other cultural practices that circumvent the need for chemical pest controls.

Industrial agriculture’s methods rely on monocultures and fossil-fuel-based inputs to overpower ecology, in contrast to organic farming’s approach of harnessing the energy and organizing power of nature’s ecology.  A farming system designed and managed in the image of nature’s ecology can enhance the farm’s natural resource base, rather than compromise natural resources, as is common for industrial agricultural systems.

The Industrial Revolution began over 200 years ago.  Today’s industrial agriculture has brought us to a pinnacle of industrialization of control over nature.  Keep in mind, however, that pundits pronounced that the Industrial Age was superseded by the Information Age sometime in the late 20th century.  The industrial approach to agriculture is already obsolete.  What the Information Age means to agriculture is knowledge of ecology, and the application of ecological principles to agricultural production.  It is only a matter of time before fossil-fuel energy costs and the need to rein in externalized costs of industrial agriculture catalyze widespread conversion to ecological agricultural systems.